Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Interview by Fred de Vries

Fred de Vries is a well-known journalist who lives in Johannesburg. He writes for South African and Dutch publications.

This interview comes from his book The Fred de Vries Interviews: From Abdullah to Zille (2008, Wits University Press), a collection of 39 interviews with South African artists, writers, musicians, and thinkers.

Hermann Niebuhr
Fordsburg, Johannesburg, April 2007

Neon lights, dodgy characters, gunshots, the smell of junk food, traces of piss and vomit. Hillbrow doesn't seem the most alluring part of town to explore at night. And certainly not the place to get out of your car and take photographs of lobbies of dilapidated apartment buildings. But that's exactly what Joburg artist Hermann Niebuhr has been doing for the last two months. Those lobbies, devoid of physical human presence, form the basis of a new set of paintings.

"There are parts of Hillbrow where you keep the camera down, because they shoot back, ha ha," says Niebuhr in his studio in Fordsburg. On a more serious note he adds, "When I first started driving around Hillbrow, it was like yeeakgrrrrrr. Then, phase two, I stopped the car and took a picture. By phase ten you get out of the car and you're fine. And you realise you're unpacking a whole lot of your own crap. I'm not saying: wear a Rolex and walk around Hillbrow. Don't be stupid. But you can get out of your car. Nothing has ever happened to me. I walk into those lobbies and say: 'Hi, I'm here to take pictures.' Sometimes they chase me away, sometimes they say it's fine."

Niebuhr's latest project is the logical follow-up to his 2005 exhibition Night Ride Home, which encapsulated the nightly journeys from his studio to his house in Kensignton. It resulted in a beautiful, almost dreamlike overview at the Absa Gallery, full of blurred visions and shattered lights, a kind of Edward Hopper for the twenty-first century.

The new paintings seem to go even deeper. "As your language develops, you're able to describe more authentically the things that you can see," says Niebuhr. "That's what I'm doing now. I go into the buildings. And once you're inside them, they still carry the knowledge from when you first saw them and thought: oh my God."

Both projects form part of his exploration of the state of the city. They lead us to pertinent questions about our aims, ideals and sense of belonging. Is Joburg a failed project or a success? Why are we so scared? Is this fear justified?
"Those issues are very much resonant with me," says Niebuhr. "I'm not going in there to see if black people like me. They don't give a fuck, and neither do I. I go in because I've identified these lobbies as beautiful metaphors for a lot of other stuff. They are the in-between thing. What I'm interested in, and maybe I put it a bit simplistically, is signs of decay, things just starting to be dirty and grubby, but not yet failed. It's the post-colonial dream that's starting to get shabby."

He shows me around his studio, where the first products of his nightly Hillbrow adventure decorate the walls. Stark, beautifully executed paintings, full of small but significant details that hint at the melancholy, the yearning and rootless lives behind those doors.

Niebuhr's trips around Joburg's underbelly are quite a dramatic departure from the austerity of his previous life, which took shape when he went to study theology at Rhodes University in Grahamstown in 1990. "I was a confused youngster. I was: 'I'm a Christian, I'm praying for everyone.' I had this fiery Baptist thing. Then I went down there (to Rhodes), did a few courses and quickly changed to art. I realised theology wasn't for me. It was really just part of being a youngster, working through the stuff that had been imposed on you."

At Rhodes he specialised in landscapes. And when he left Grahamstown he didn't go to Joburg or Cape Town, but opted to live like a virtual hermit in De Rust, a dorpie (little town) in the Karoo. There he epitomised the old notion of the romantic artist, singularly painting and communicating with nature. "I build an empire there. I was untouchable in many ways, lost in this going into my own world. I wasn't even affected by my exhibitions. It would be the work going out and cash would come in. I often wasn't there for the openings. It was very bohemian in a sense: this wild man communicating with nature. Very romantic, a kind of modernist Rousseau. I loved it."

He pauses to reminisce about those nine years of rural bliss. "I survived by painting, sending my work to galleries. It was survival on a shoestring. But what it gave me was a lot of time and space to paint. My work was always around the landscape. There was a metaphysical thing going on with the landscapes."

All this came to an end when he separated from the artist girlfriend with whom he had shared this isolated life. "One morning, after she had left, I woke up and realised: I can't do this on my own. It wasn't a solitary pursuit. I sat there on my stoep (veranda), looking out over my empire, my olive groves, and thought: either you retire now or you go back into the world and roll up your sleeves. That was five years ago."

So, instead of whiling away in the Karoo, he started traveling. He went to Europe for the first time, saw all the great museums. He went to Ireland, had an exhibition there. He stayed in Berlin, hearing the language of his great-grandfather who came to South Africa as a missionary. "I do speak German. I went to a Lutheran church. I did my catechism. At home we still speak German. But it's a strange German, like from another era. When I was in Germany people said: 'Ah, please ask me what the time is again.' They laughed and laughed."

Three years ago he settled back in the city of his birth, Joburg. Through the years he has developed a love/hate relationship with the creepy metropolis. "I grew up in the suburbs, Bryanston. My father was an accountant. I got out as soon as I could. Then, almost fifteen years later, I returned to this Joburg that had always been, in a way, forbidden to me. Because you didn't go to town, it was considered dangerous. And then I totally embraced it."

Joburg pulls at him, teases him, inspires him, confuses, him, tears him apart. His new girlfriend, who is American, found it impossible to understand his fascination. "She said she didn't want to live here. I told her it was a great city. So she asked me to show what's so great about it. And we drove around. I took her to the muti (traditional medicine) market and all those little discoveries you make. But in the end I realised it's a very dysfunctional city. It doesn't actually work. You can't show it to people. You have this relationship with it, you bond with it. That's what you have, and then you embellish and romanticise that a bit. We live in hope. But it's a tough, rough, city with an underlying violence to it."

He gets up and makes some coffee, which we drink on the balcony, looking out over the Asian hustle and bustle of Main Street. "We have a strangely dysfunctional relationship to the city, which may be based on history," continues Niebuhr. "But also, as you let it wash over you, you have beautiful, terrific encounters. Like these homeless guys who sleep outside and are my security. We've never been ripped off. Here you establish easy relationships with your community. I know the shopkeepers there, the tailor from across the road, the travel agency. It's a complete community. They ask me how business is. It's really sweet. You don't have that in the suburbs."

And indeed, as we sit there, watching the traders, smelling the food, seeing the traffic, we experience one of those magic, inexplicable Joburg moments. Surely his girlfriend must have felt the same way? Hermann shakes his head. "She's left, gone back to the US. I'll get her back. But not here, she doesn't want to live here. She doesn't feel safe. She feels she can't get around. She liked Cape Town. I hate Cape Town for all the reasons that I like this place. It's the African gateway. Cape Town's problems don't interest me, whereas Joburg's problems are ... You know, here you're grappling. And I'm not talking about some fucker with a gun at your head. That's a national problem."

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